Tips for Creating a Successful Interdisciplinary Product Development Program
Ed Dorsa, IDSA, School of Architecture + Design, Eloise Coupey, PhD, Pamplin College of Business Ron Kemnitzer, FIDSA, School of Architecture + Design Tom Martin, PhD, Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering | Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
We begin the discussion of interdisciplinary programs with the premise that we all want to improve the quality and relevance of our programs so that our graduates will be competitive and successful. To this end, effective curriculum design requires us to anticipate the future of the field and to integrate best practices. This integration may span several dimensions: the blending of past and present practices; across philosophies within a program; across different schools, disciplines, and even institutions.
It is far more complicated to implement an interdisciplinary program within an institution than to develop a strong discipline-specific program. Despite the fact that many professional programs are working within their institutions to develop interdisciplinary programs, there is very little collaboration between institutions to share approaches to common administrative problems and curricular successes. While interdisciplinary collaboration has become fashionable at all levels of university academic communities, the interest in collaboration among those professional disciplines involved in product development has been particularly strong. This relatively recent interest in leveraging the strengths of related disciplines may reflect the recognition that product development in professional settings requires an ever-increasing range of skills and functions.
Academic industrial design programs traditionally have developed products with little or no input from other, closely associated fields—failing to make use of resources that were nearby and potentially highly useful to the process. This has been equally true of engineering and business, the two colleges we most need to partner with. Isolated curricular programs stand in marked contrast to the way product development occurs in today’s business world. Not only in the US, but throughout the world, ID programs recognize that interdisciplinary teams are the future of our profession. Increasingly, the professional product development process has moved away from “over the wall,” segmented product development, and toward a collaborative effort—one that encourages professionals to stretch their skill levels and work outside their narrow areas of expertise, working together to produce better products and services.
There are many benefits to be derived from interdisciplinary product-development studios in university settings. By definition, they bring together students and faculty from diverse programs—students and faculty with different areas of expertise, who work in different ways and bring different skill sets to the collaboration—and put them into an environment that simulates the workplace that they hope to enter. Interdisciplinary collaboration produces a level of depth and detail that students cannot hope to generate in isolation, and it places the project solution and users at the center of the endeavor, where they should be. Students, faculty, and the final project all benefit from an interdisciplinary approach.
A few schools have already recognized the importance of an interdisciplinary perspective, and have had programs running for several years or more; for instance, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle, and Stanford University. Many other programs recognize the importance of this approach, and are at various stages of implementing their own programs. Our school, Virginia Tech, is three years into a curriculum development process that is gaining recognition and support across the university.
This paper provides an overview of the primary challenges and insights encountered by four members of our interdisciplinary faculty team who led a collaborative project funded by Procter & Gamble in spring 2006. This project was the first of three different and successful collaborative activities and was followed by a funded faculty research team charged to develop funding proposals for interdisciplinary product development; and an undergraduate interdisciplinary product development studio that resulted in five provisional patent applications out of eleven team projects, from one semester’s work.